Questions, Not Answers

April 22nd, 2019 | Leadership
Questions, Not Answers

Excerpted from Chapter 10 of Why Great Leaders Don’t Take YES for Answer.  By Michael Roberto

In most business schools, we teach by the case method. We do not lecture our students. We provide a description of a management situation, and we ask students to put themselves in the shoes of the case protagonist, who has an important decision that he needs to make. Students learn inductively in this method of instruction. The professor does not hand the students a set of theories and principles and ask them to apply those ideas to the case study. Instead, the students discuss the issues facing the organization in the case, and principles and hypotheses about how to manage that situation effectively emerge from the class deliberations.

What do students learn through the case method of instruction? Do they come away with a set of answers about how to act in a specific situation? No, that is not our primary goal. We hope to teach our students how to make decisions rather than provide them a set of prepackaged solutions to various management problems that they may encounter during their careers.

When asked what students learn at Harvard Business School, former Dean John McArthur once said, “How we teach is what we teach.” What did he mean by that? Consider how an instructor behaves in the classroom. He asks questions—lots of them. He does not provide any answers, much to the chagrin of many students. Often, they want to hear the faculty member’s recommended solution to the management problem described in the case. When pressed, most of us simply ask more questions rather than provide answers.

A case method instructor leads with restraint. By leading with restraint, we aim to harness the collective intellect in the classroom and to create new knowledge through a process of inquiry and debate. We facilitate and moderate the deliberations. We stimulate dissent and divergent thinking, often employing the techniques described in Chapter 4, “Stimulating the Clash of Ideas,” such as role-play and mental simulation exercises. We try to establish a climate in which conflict can remain constructive. At times, we seek to bring opposing sides together, helping them to find common ground. To gain traction on complex problems, we often break them down into manageable pieces and tackle one aspect of the issue at a time—striving for a series of small wins as we build toward the denouement of a particular class session.

There is an important lesson here for all leaders. Consider again what Peter Drucker once said:

“The most common source of mistakes in management decisions is the emphasis on finding the right answer rather than the right question.” Peter Drucker

Indeed, proposing a solution often does not promote novel lines of inquiry, thought, and debate. It can shut down creative thinking or close entire avenues of discussion. By posing incisive questions, leaders can open up whole new areas of dialogue, unearth new information, cause people to rethink their mental models, and expose previously unforeseen risks. Much like a case method instructor, an effective leader uses sharp, penetrating questions to generate new insights regarding complex problems. Those insights become the ingredients necessary to invent new options, probe underlying assumptions, and make better decisions.

For case method instructors, the questions form long before a classroom session commences. Faculty members think carefully about how they want to lead the discussion. We anticipate the key points of debate and conflict. We devise mechanisms to spark divergent thinking. Faculty members consider the personalities in the room. We anticipate points of personal friction. We think about our role in the deliberations and how we will intervene to advance the discussion. In short, we have a plan—albeit a highly flexible one. Great leaders, of course, behave as great teachers. They prepare to decide just as teachers prepare to teach. They have a plan, but they adapt as the decision-making process unfolds.

Great leaders do not have all the answers, but they remain firmly in control of the process through which their organizations discover the best answers to the toughest problems.


Michael A. Roberto


Michael Roberto is Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island.   You can connect with Michael @  Click “HERE” to purchase “Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer”


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